Death to lorem ipsum: putting content first.

There’s a lot of threads to pull together to successfully build and launch a new website. You take time to plan the sitemap, user journey, messaging, broad look and feel requirements, build platform, functional requirements, integrations, content management needs, layouts and design…. oh yeah, and of course content.

Arguably, content is the most important part of the website. It’s the heart of the messaging; it’s what the site is built to house and showcase. It’s what the user journey work will to guide people through. And it’s what the look and feel should support. Why, then, does content creation often come so far down the list of priorities?

On the surface, the idea of designing a website without knowing what you’re going to put in it seems ridiculous, like trying to paint a picture of something you’ve never seen. And yet it’s something that we regularly find ourselves trying to do. There are times when the existing content is a good template to work from, but often extensive rewrites are planned, or the site is brand new, and we find ourselves working towards a look and feel without knowing what the content is going to be.

Enter Lorem Ipsum

Of course, lorem ipsum is usually the go-to to fill the space of missing content - but as every designer knows, the standard typesetting dummy text is no substitute for real content. You can create beautiful designs with lorem which are blown to pieces when the real content arrives. That bold heading in the carefully chosen font looks amazing with three- to five- word titles, but then the real content shows up, with its eighteen-word titles, and ruins your day.  Worse, though -design is – in part - a discipline of creating consistent, re-usable components. Without content, not only do you not know what the components should look like, you may not even know what components you need to build.

The problem has worsened over time. Go back far enough, and it was – sort of – possible to build an ‘empty’ website for a client to populate with content when they were ready. Homepage elements could usually be decided up-front, and many of the rest of the pages were single columns of content. These days, however, every page in a website will have visually interesting and context-appropriate layouts rather than being a single wall of text. That’s great for UX, but increases the difficulty for designers, who are expected to create re-usable blocks for laying out content, often without knowing what that content will be.

Leaving copywriting till last benefits no-one

And it’s not just from a design perspective where leaving copy till last is a sin. Copywriting is an art, not an afterthought. Using lorem ipsum - and then replacing it later with something that’s similar in length so it still looks good - reduces content to the status of filler. Copy is not just words to fill some space. It’s a story, it’s a message, it’s an art-form, and it’s a UI in its own right. It can be optimised, and its effectiveness measured. It feeds directly into the user’s experience of the page. No-one is well served by doing it last.

Copywriting in a void is hard

So how should we approach this? Well, in an ideal world, every project would have a content expert on hand from the start. But in many organisations the marcomms department will do this as one of their many responsibilities. And the feedback we get is that they’re happy to write content for the layouts once they know what the pages are going to look like. This leads to a chicken-and-egg sort of standoff: it’s impossible to claim that either content or design can exist without the other, so which ought to be done first?

Well, as we’ve said, writing content to fit or fill a certain space in a layout reduces the content to little more than filler.

A better approach is to provide structure to the copywriting by pulling it into the planning process for the whole site. Start with the audience: who are we building this website to communicate with? From there, what content?  This group of users will need these content types, those will need more of this. Onwards, to a sitemap! Now we know what pages we need, and (at a very top level) what will be on them. User journey planning – how will we take the user through our content? Then throw in some guidance – effective writing for the web is a particular skill, requiring more brevity if possible, and more formatting if brevity is not an option. There are some amazing resources on the NNGroup’s website, many of them backed by research into user behaviour, which can really inform content writing.  And if in doubt, back to the audience: who am I writing for and what is it I need to tell them?

With this support and context, the belief that the design needs to be in place before content can be created will be eroded.

Take aways

We’ve had too many projects where we’ve tried to design around lorem and guesswork, and it doesn’t lead to good outcomes.  So while it may not always be possible to get all the content up front, we are committed to a content-led approach where design follows content rather than the other way around.

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